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Justine Bateman Discusses Concerns With SAG-AFTRA Deal’s AI Protections, Warns Loopholes Could “Collapse The Structure” Of Hollywood

Justine Bateman has spent the better part of this year warning Hollywood about the potential consequences of artificial intelligence in film and TV, even before the topic became a major part of contract negotiations for both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA.

While both guilds were able to secure guardrails surrounding the uses of AI in their latest contracts with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, Bateman — who is a former member of the SAG board and negotiating committee — thinks the actors union didn’t go far enough.

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SAG-AFTRA’s 118-day strike came to an end last week, when the studios finally struck a deal with the guild. While the ratification vote started this week, the union has yet to release the full tentative MBA. Instead, they released a detailed summary of the contract, which includes extensive language about how the studios can and cannot use AI to replace actors or alter their performances.

Since then, Bateman has pointed out several concerns with the AI portion of the summary, including how the use of “synthetic performers” has the potential to replace living actors as well as how consent will (or won’t) be obtained to use digital replicas of real performers.

“I think generative AI is one of the worst ideas we’ve ever had in this society,” Bateman told Deadline during a recent interview in which she discusses the shortcomings of the current deal on the table and the longterm potential impacts of generative AI.

SAG-AFTRA has encouraged members to attend informational sessions and ask clarifying questions of their leadership before the ratification voting deadline on December 5. Many of the concerns brought forth during these sessions have been about AI. The guild’s National Executive Director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland told Deadline today, “It does make me feel good to have those dialogues” ahead of the vote.

“While I recognize that there are people who have questions, doubts, or even concerns about the contract, I feel very confident that this contract is the absolute best deal that could be obtained in this negotiation, that the protections against the use of AI are very strong, and while they can definitely be improved and will be in future rounds of bargaining, that they provide the kind of core protection that our members expect,” he said. “And in recognition of the fact that we can’t stop the advance of technology and can channel that into the right direction….I think our members at large see that there are huge gains in this contract that are unprecedented and that just put us in a position to further advance our members interests in the next round of bargaining and beyond.”

Read Bateman’s interview below.

DEADLINE: Have you read the actual MBA, or just the summary that SAG-AFTRA has put out publicly?

JUSTINE BATEMAN: I have read the AI portion of it. But I didn’t really need to, to point out what I pointed out. The summary is fairly detailed. You can also go off some of the things that have been said by Duncan [Crabtree-Ireland] in interviews. I mean, the information is available.

DEADLINE: Sure, but I’ve seen some chatter among members wishing they could read the actual agreement before they vote on ratification.

BATEMAN: I mentioned to Duncan that might be a good idea. He said it won’t be ready in time. But I said that one portion, you could probably make available. It’s very concerning for people, because it’s the first time they’ve had to deal with those kinds of permissions and allowances. Everything else, like rate changes, they’re areas that they or their representatives are familiar with. But this is an area that is very new for everybody, and is an existential area on top of that. So anyway, they’ll do what they’re going to do, but it might be helpful for them, because people want to know, and they can take it to their lawyers instead of [SAG-AFTRA] having to answer all the questions, one by one, themselves.

DEADLINE: Do you think this AI issue is going to make or break the ratification vote?

BATEMAN: I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s going to be ratified or not. My focus for the last nine months has just been to tell people what is coming. That’s all. I’m not advocating for people to vote one way or the other. I just think it’s inhuman and cruel to not tell people what they’re walking into, to not tell people where the loopholes are. If you’ve been in the business long enough, you know we’ll be exploited. At some point, they absolutely will be exploited, and [they] will have to live with that fallout. So understanding what that fallout is, and then deciding for yourself. These are intelligent adults, most of them. I mean, most of them are adults, some of them are kids. But these are intelligent people, members of the Screen Actors Guild, and they can make up their own mind. I don’t have to tell them. I’m just the mailman. I didn’t write the letter. I’m just saying, ‘Here’s what’s in the letter, and here’s what can be done with what’s in the letter.’ That’s all. If they want to be mad at somebody, they can be mad at the AMPTP. They can be mad at the people who insisted or negotiated these terms, which is the replacement of human actors with something that looks human.

DEADLINE: I want to get your take on the exceptions to consent laid out in the summary, which seem pretty wide ranging. Specifically, post-production alterations.

BATEMAN: Well, I don’t know that there’s an exemption for post-production. I mean, there’s an exemption if it’s very similar to what was already scripted, which can be wildly interpreted and widely interpreted depending on someone’s opinion of what type of character the actor is playing. But the biggest issue is the ‘synthetic performers,’ which I just call human looking AI objects, because they’re not performers. Having that in there would be like if the Teamsters said that it’s okay to use self driving trucks instead of them. Or, it would be like the DGA not having the definition of a director or any of the other positions being human, that you could have a director that’s just a generative AI base. It would be like the WGA saying it’s okay if chatGPT authors full scripts. That’s what that is, and I’ve maintained from the very beginning, when I started talking to actors about what would happen, that’s the key to the front door. You can do all these renovations in the house. You can get all these other gains in the contract. But if you don’t get that, if you don’t get control of what they can do without you based on 100 years of performances…you put in a prompt and you get out this Frankenstein amalgamation of performances. I said that if you don’t get that, you’ve given them the front key to the house, because it’s not just the actors. It’s the crew, it’s the drivers, it’s everybody. If you don’t have to shoot an actor, you don’t need a set. You don’t need a crew. You don’t need drivers.

DEADLINE: It seems like monetary damages is going to be members’ sole recourse in most cases for violation of the AI portion of the MBA. Are you worried about that, considering the studios have never seemed to be deterred by any sort of fines in the past?

BATEMAN: Well, this is true of all large corporations. Fine payments don’t seem to deter them a lot.

DEADLINE: So, do you think there should be another actionable way for actors to be able to fight any violations?

BATEMAN: The weird thing about these negotiations, the AI section of it is like negotiating with cannibals. You shouldn’t be talking about cutting off your feet at all. But the conversation becomes just, ‘ How are we going to remove your feet? And will we be grilling them or boiling them? And what kind of sauce are we going to put on them?’ So I’m not the one to talk to you about the best way to compensate someone if they if they see their ‘digital double’ in something. I’m not an actor anymore. But you know, if I was, I would say I’m going to be scan free. I don’t know. That’s just me personally. I mean, as a filmmaker, I’ll never use generative AI. I’m going to use humans. It’s been done for 100 years, and it’s good enough for me.

DEADLINE: As you talk about this online, what are the responses you’ve been getting from members?

BATEMAN: Oh, I mean, many people are just really grateful to have it explained to them in plain language. I’m glad to have this combination of expertise, the computer science degree and also years ago, I was on the SAG board and was on the SAG negotiating committee. I’m also writer and producer and a director. I’ve been combing through contracts for over 40 years, and it’s a really great combination of assets to have at this moment in time. I’m just letting them know what these terms mean. I said things before this agreement came out at all. I’m still saying the same thing. I didn’t need to look at. The SAG negotiations didn’t even need to start for me to know what the studios wanted to do with actors. I think because the bottom line is this is fueled by abject greed, and when studio and streaming CEOs are looking at an opportunity to reduce the overhead of our human labor to such an extent that they’re paying a fraction of the cost to make these films and could possibly make the same amount in box office. To imagine that they’re not going to go for that is very naive. You always know what people are either already doing or are going to do by what they asked for in a negotiation. And now we see it, things that I’ve said way back before the negotiations even started.

DEADLINE: What’s the solution? Whether that be amending this contract or in the negotiations three years from now, how can the MBA better protect actors?

BATEMAN: Well, in order to keep the profession alive at all… that synthetic performer sh*t has to come out. I told you the equivalents in the other unions. The Screen Actors Guild represents human performers, and when you have a clause in the MBA that allows for something else to take those parts, I’m not sure. I mean, it’s supposed to be of service to the members that are in that union. Synthetic AI objects are not in the Screen Actors Guild. There’s also going to be big financial ramifications for the union itself when they use those objects. That’s an object. That’s not a person, not going to be paid, not paying dues to the union, you’re not going to have pension and health contributions, on behalf of that object. I know it says in there that they’d negotiate consideration, but it doesn’t even say financial consideration, unless they add that word. So how are you going to force the studios to pay you something? That’s the biggest problem. And people say like, ‘Oh, that will never happen.’ It’s like, we’re not talking about Polar Express from like, what was it? 20 years ago? They can go to Credo23.com and the ‘AI and film’ page, and it lists all the things that I believe will happen in the business. There are hyperlinks to all these video demos, and they could just look at that and decide for themselves.

DEADLINE: Earlier this week, Fran Drescher called those criticizing the contract ‘naysayers’ and ‘contrarians.’ How do you feel about that, considering you’ve been so outspoken about this?

BATEMAN: I just feel what I felt for the last nine months. I love this business. I love everyone who is called to this business. I think it’s important that they have an understanding of what was coming and is here now and will be coming more so in the future. I just think it’s important to let people know that they can make up their own minds about whatever they want to do, whether it’s ratification or what they want to do professionally in two years when this is all, you know. There’s some things that are going to happen to actors that don’t have that much to do with the MBA, like…the odds of you booking a job. Ted Sarandos had a great quote once. He’s talking about movie releases, and he says, ‘It used to be that your movie would compete with just what was in the theaters at that time, that weekend, that month, whatever. Now, you’re going to be competing with every film that’s ever been released, because it’s available online.’ In that same sense, actors used to audition against all the other actors that were their age and their type, that were available, that weren’t busy on another film. It’s somewhat of a finite number of people, and it was hard to get a job already. Now, what’s going to happen to these actors is they’ll be competing against that group, and digital doubles of all the all the actors who are alive, who were busy or not. Maybe it’s a role for someone who’s 25 years old? Well, Tom Cruise can have a scan of himself and have a version of himself that’s 25. So no matter what the age of the actors who are alive right now, you’re competing against them, and you’re competing against 100 years worth of actors that their estates or the union gave permission — which that’s a crazy kind of concept. Anyway, you’re competing against all the dead actors, too, and you’re competing against an unlimited number of synthetic AI objects. So the percentage of jobs a human is going to have now are going to be much smaller than they were before.

DEADLINE: What do you say to anyone who says that having any guardrails on AI is a start, and there’s always another negotiation in three years?

BATEMAN: Well, let’s look at what’s happened in six months. This is a tech that gets exponentially better, even while we were doing this interview, and while you’re sleeping. This isn’t a tech where it gets better as the humans who are using it get better. This isn’t like old school Photoshop or something. So this is getting exponentially better. Three years. I mean, we should be thinking about the incredible changes we’re going to see in the next three months. Three months, not three years. I don’t think any one union is going to have a leverage to do any bargaining at all in two and a half years. That’s why, I don’t know how practical it is, but I wish IATSE, Teamsters, WGA, DGA and SAG could all be on the same cycle. So that all together, we could have some leverage. Look, the whole structure of the business is this pipeline of labor from conception to release and promotion. When you start taking out chunks of that pipeline, you’re gonna collapse the structure of it. That’s just kind of business physics, and that’s what’s going to happen here. They’re gonna collapse the structure. Even if you didn’t have the synthetic AI objects, just the digital double thing alone. I get it, there’s protections — consent and compensation. But how much can you shoot with a digital double? You’re probably not using a set, if you’re doing that. So even if it’s just for second unit, you got lots of people on second unit crews that have made a living that way. Now, they’re eliminated. I mean, that’s just in the smallest sense of it. Then you go a little bigger, and you’re like, alright, well, there’s a film [starring] Bradley Cooper, but we’re using his digital double. So the shooting schedule now, instead of it being two months, is only three weeks, because we don’t need to shoot all the stuff that he’s going to be in because that’ll be done through generative AI. So even with all the protections, and even if there were no loopholes, and you took out the synthetic performers, you’re still going to have these issues.

DEADLINE: You mentioned the amount of human actors who could lose out on jobs simply because of the use of generative AI, but you also said that if you were still acting you’d go scan-free. There doesn’t appear to be any language prohibiting scans from being a condition of employment, though. So refusing to get a scan could also cost someone a job.

BATEMAN: That’s a good point. They’ll have to do their homework first and really be able to spell out how those scans will be used, instead of it being a hand wavy, ‘Oh, just for second unit stuff.’ I don’t know. There’s so many questions, because [what if] there’s a leak and all those digital doubles get out there?

DEADLINE: You also mentioned on social media the idea of a company selling their assets or going out of business.

BATEMAN: It’ll be seen as an asset, just like a copyrighted film is one of your assets. Amazon didn’t buy MGM just for the name. They bought the library. This is actors really being commoditized, big time. It’s a shame. It’s very insulting to the art form of acting. The whole concept of using generative AI in the film business at all, I think, is offensive and it’s insulting to filmmakers, from actors to the grips to everybody. It’s really sad. I think we’re gonna have some great things on the other side of it, but there’s going to be a collapsing inferno before that.

DEADLINE: What can actors, and other filmmakers, do about it now then?

BATEMAN: Oh, I would say this to actors, crew members, anybody — make as much money as you can the next two, three years. Seek out filmmakers who are doing human films and tell them you want to work with them. And like, hold on, because on the other side, after everything burns down, I think there’ll be a new genre in film. Something really new in the way that jazz was new, rock ‘n’ roll was new when they first started, or the flapper era. It wasn’t a throwback to something else. It was really new. So I think that’s what will happen, but it’ll be a pretty bad before that.

DEADLINE: I saw a video you shared, it was Zendaya talking about the importance of reading contracts. It essentially sums up what you’re talking about, that it’s not new for companies to look for loopholes.

BATEMAN: Absolutely, and if you’ve been in the business long enough, like I said earlier, you have had experiences where where you had a contract where there were loopholes and allowances that maybe you didn’t notice. Or maybe you did notice, and maybe you crossed your fingers and hoped they wouldn’t exploit that, and then you had an experience or two where they did. You made a mental note to never have those loopholes in your contract again. Like best efforts. I mean, everybody who has been around long enough, they know best efforts mean means no effort. It means the answer’s no, but we don’t have big argument with you about it. We’ll make our best efforts to get you tickets to a screening or something, and sometimes they do. But it’s like no guarantees. Some companies, they’re just not going to try at all. Listen, the other side knows what the language means. They’ve know from having contractual conflicts over the years. They know what they can get away with. They know what is absolutely a loophole, like best efforts is a loophole. So when they say in the agreement, they’ll make best efforts for dead performers to get their consent to use a digital double of them, they’ll make best efforts to reach the [estate], if they’re unable they’ll go to SAG and get permission. And I just go, okay, that could mean a cursory Google search for heirs and didn’t find any. So we go to the union, get permission, and then who exactly at the union is going to give permission? Maybe somebody’s relative is around, but the studio didn’t put in enough effort to find them, and the first time you see your mom, or your grandparents, or somebody up on the screen…we heard it recently with Robin Williams, his daughter. She’s not in control of his estate, but whoever it is gave permission for him to be involved in some project, and she was mortified. In all areas, not just entertainment, it’s really gonna mess with people’s heads. That’s not specific to this agreement, but I was hoping that the union could carve out at least a lane for human actors to go through this, like the DGA and WGA were able to do.

DEADLINE: Why do you think they didn’t? They just weren’t able to, or they aren’t seeing things from the same perspective? How did we get here?

BATEMAN: They did the job they did. I’m not interested in criticizing the leadership. There are a lot of things I would have done, which is neither here nor there right now. What could have been done differently? There’s a lot in my opinion, but I wasn’t lead negotiator. I’m not going to criticize them, but I do think what’s important is making sure the members understand what the loopholes and allowances are, at the very least, so they can get their own agents and lawyers to fill in those gaps. They’ll have to have their own standard AI rider. In a lot of other areas, they made good gains. But in other areas, you can rely on the MBA being the floor for you. It’s just the responsible thing to do, to tell them where these where these loopholes are, and how these allowances are going to change the profession. It’s immoral not to. You can’t let them walk into these situations not knowing what the other side has been given permission to do.

DEADLINE: I also wonder how much consumers will buy into the use of generative AI. Do you think there is a tipping point, where audiences are no longer interested because the use of AI is so apparent in film and TV?

BATEMAN: Eventually, yeah. So I think the way it’ll go is that audiences, not cinephiles, the general audience will receive it as something different, something new. They’re so used to watching content instead of real films and series, that it’ll just seemed one step away from that. I think the streamers at the very least, will upsell them. For an extra fee, you can face replace. If you want to watch Star Wars, and you want to play a Princess Leia, put your face on Carrie Fisher’s body, that’s not something that’s covered in this [MBA], which is unfortunate, like really unfortunate, because I think it’s gonna happen a lot. Or they reskin entire casts. Like the cast from Citizen Kane, maybe they want to repurpose that for someone who’s viewing history is mysteries that have African Americans in them or something. And so they’ll say, ‘Well, Citizen Kane is sort of a mystery. We can repurpose that and have a whole new library of films for this person that maybe didn’t look at that film before.’ I think there’s gonna be a lot of that repurposing. They’re gonna be a lot of lawsuits. [Upselling] will target that narcissism that has roared to life because of social media. So, if they’re clever, they’ll tap into that with this. So it’ll be a novelty for a while, and then I think people start feeling sick about it. If you change the air that’s being pumped into a room and start reducing the oxygen slowly, slowly, slowly, people don’t realize what’s going on until they’re in a state where they desperately need oxygen. It seems to me that artists are a tube through which God, the universe, magic, whatever you want to call it, comes through into society. We’ve seen it, era after era, how things artists are doing change the course of things or reflect what is changing. I’s an important element in society. I think when you cut off that tube, you’re just doing this regurgitation of our past. We’ve already seen a lot of regurgitation of the 20th century, and we’re gonna see a lot more of that. It’s kind of like we’ve been doing AI by hand by doing all these reboots and sequels and everything. Now, they’ll be able to do that much faster and much quicker. But yeah, I think there’s gonna be a point where the audience goes, ‘Hey, I don’t feel good.’ And then they’ll hunger for something that is real, and I think that’ll be kind of remarkable and fantastic.

DEADLINE: That’s an optimistic way to look at it.

BATEMAN: Yeah, it’ll be the next chapter. It won’t be the last chapter. This whole AI Inferno, brought to you by greed.

DEADLINE: As you were describing that, it almost sounded like a Black Mirror episode. Do you find it ironic that there is such a killing to be made off films and series about the dangers of AI, especially amid this whole negotiation?

BATEMAN: Well, there have been decades of these films, decades of them. It’s almost as if people are going, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be amazing if that happened?’ It’s one thing to see a film, and then it ends, you see the credits and stuff. It’s another thing to have to live through it. But almost all of those films end with that. You’re coming into this dystopia, and it ends in a disturbing way. That’s it. But I don’t think that’s how it’s gonna go for us. I think it’s gonna get really ugly, but then there’s going to be something remarkable on the other side that probably couldn’t have happened without the fire. We’re gonna have Noah’s flood, but eventually, the bird is going to come back with the olive branch in his mouth, and we’re going to have something incredible.

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